Jenson Button has been a good soldier for McLaren. Despite arriving at the team just in time for the beginning of Red Bull's four-year dominance of Formula One and his team getting progressively further off the pace, Button has mostly refused to air any complaints publicly.
Even as the team has struggled, the Somerset native has continued to show his talent. In the last 10 races, dating back to last year's Brazilian Grand Prix, Button has scored a third-place finish, three fourth places and two sixth-place finishes in a completely uncompetitive car.
Still, McLaren must be ready to replace him next year.
This season, McLaren removed team principal Martin Whitmarsh, as former boss Ron Dennis reassumed control of the racing team. Next year, they will be switching from Mercedes to Honda power units, resuming a successful partnership that won four straight Drivers' and Constructors' Championships from 1988 to 1991.
Alonso, now in his fifth year at Ferrari, has yet to receive a car from the Scuderia to match his talents. McLaren tried to sign the Spaniard for 2014 (h/t Andrew Benson of the BBC), but he opted to spend another season at Ferrari. Now, Alonso looks headed for his first winless season since 2009, his last year at Renault.
If McLaren can make progress in the second half of this year and begin to challenge the teams ahead of them, as Button did at the British Grand Prix last weekend, it could be enough to convince Alonso that the British team is a better option than Ferrari for next year.
Meanwhile, Hamilton has been handed a dominant car at Mercedes. However, a variety of misfortunes have left him a close second to teammate Nico Rosberg in the championship. If Hamilton does not overhaul him for the Drivers' title, it could cause him to look elsewhere, for an opportunity to be the clear No. 1 driver.
If that is the case, McLaren makes the most sense for Hamilton—he has close and longstanding ties to the team and to Dennis, who supported his career from the time he was still racing go-karts. In June, the Daily Mail's Jonathan McEvoy reported that McLaren and Hamilton had a rapprochement.
Of course, even if McLaren does bring Alonso or Hamilton back into the fold, they could elect to keep Button. But that scenario would leave them with two drivers over 30 years of age and mean jettisoning their second young talent in two years.
After the 2013 season, the quick but inconsistent Sergio Perez was released to bring in 21-year-old Kevin Magnussen. The young Dane finished second in his first F1 race but has struggled to repeat that form, following Button home in six of the seven races they have both finished since Australia.
Still, if McLaren truly believes he is its driver of the future, dumping him after one season would be foolish.
That brings us back to Button. He is a good driver, proven winner and former world champion. But Alonso and Hamilton are arguably the two best drivers on the grid and—I do not think this is hyperbole—two of the greatest pure racing talents in the history of the sport.
There is one other consideration: McLaren is still without a title sponsor. The company, with a myriad of business ventures outside F1, is not in the same financial straits that some of the smaller teams are, but a title sponsor would cover a big chunk of its budget.
In addition to being two of the sport's most talented drivers, Alonso and Hamilton are also two of the most recognizable faces in F1. In fact, SportsPro magazine named Hamilton the most marketable athlete in the world for 2014.
Adding either of those two names would certainly be well-received in the McLaren marketing department.
But maybe Hamilton will go on to win the title this season and decide he does have support he needs at Mercedes. And Alonso might be convinced that Ferrari's recent reorganisations have set them on the path to building a winner next year.
In that case, stability on the driver front may help McLaren as Honda finds its feet after six years out of the sport.
If either Alonso or Hamilton do express interest in returning to McLaren, though, sacrificing Button—the loyal soldier—may be the price of a return to glory.
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